Nowt as queer as folk-horror 2

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(c) Film 4 / Rook Films

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This is my second post about British folk-horror movies – i.e. movies that don’t rely on generic and usually-imported plot-elements like serial killers, vampires, werewolves or zombies for their scares, but instead use things lurking in the darker corners of Britain’s indigenous folklore and legends.  Previously, I wrote about this sub-genre up until the end of the 1980s and Ken Russell’s 1988 epic The Lair of the White Worm, a film so ludicrous I’m surprised it didn’t convince filmmakers that British folklore could never be the source of anything scary.

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Actually, there’s another 1980s film that I forgot to mention.  1986 saw a British-Irish co-production called Rawhead Rex, based on a short story that’d appeared in the third volume of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood anthology series.  Often, Barker devises his own mythologies for his stories and screenplays, as he would with the later Hellraiser films, but in Rawhead Rex he borrows from old tales found in various European cultures about ‘wild men of the woods’ – wodwos is the term for them that appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that famous alliterative romance of the late 14th century.

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Rawhead Rex has an alliterative title, all right, but there’s nothing romantic about it.  The story features a hulking, hairy, humanoid and utterly bloodthirsty monster who since pagan times has been magically imprisoned under a huge rock in rural Kent.  In the present day, a farmer uproots the rock and unwittingly releases the beast, who runs amok, killing and eating people.  He’s only stopped with the discovery (in a church) of an ancient talisman, shaped like a pregnant woman, which drains him of his strength.  Like most of Barker’s early writing, Rawhead Rex is full-on in its gore and brutality – two of the torn-apart victims are young children – and I suspect he was less interested in exploring themes of nature, fertility and death in British folklore and more interested in creating a Jaws-type juxtaposition between the creature’s primordial savagery and the picture-postcard serenity of the modern Home Counties countryside.

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Unfortunately, when Rawhead Rex was filmed, the moviemakers shifted the setting from Kent in England to County Wicklow in Ireland.  This gives the film a more old-worldly and Celtic-y feel but removes the jarring contrast between monster and environment that Barker created in the original story.  Meanwhile, though the basic plot elements are still there, director George Pavlou doesn’t make much of them – there’s a pagan monster on the loose, it can only be defeated by a strange altar-stone that shoots out magic energy beams and well, that’s it.  A third problem is the appearance of the monster.  I didn’t think it looked too bad in stills from the film – though Barker hated the filmmakers’ depiction of it and likened it to a “nine-foot-tall phallus with teeth” – but when I caught up with Rawhead Rex on TV a while ago I had to admit, yes, it looked very much like a man in a crap monster-suit.  In fact, I was reminded again of my old friend, the monster in the 1970s advertisements for Chewits – “Chewits!  Even chewier than a 15-storey block of flats!”

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(c) Alpine Pictures

From zillastyle.blogspot.com

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By the late 1990s, a new generation of British filmmakers with a fondness for the macabre had appeared and the second wave of British horror movies was underway, a wave that’s continued to this day.  One of the first films out of the blocks was Darklands, a folk-horror one about a conspiracy involving human-sacrificing Welsh pagans and Welsh nationalist politicians.  (It’s probably not a favourite movie among members of Plaid Cymru.)  Directed by Julian Richards and filmed in Swansea, Newport and at Port Talbot’s imposing steelworks, the 1998-released Darklands is a bit duff, although I like how it features the late, great Jon Finch in a supporting role.  Playing the hero, a Welshman with a suspiciously Cockney accent, is Craig Fairbrass, who at the time was enjoying a Jason-Statham-type career roll as an action hero.  As critic Kim Newman noted in Empire magazine, “Craig Fairbrass isn’t quite right for a role that asks him to spend more time running away from people than nutting them.”

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Newman was also narked by Darklands’ predictability.  Not wanting to give too much away, he wrote that the plot was “so clearly patterned on a specific early 1970s horror classic that it soon becomes obvious where it is headed.”  The website British Horror Films was blunter in its appraisal of this Welsh folk-horror movie: “it’s The Wicker Man, boyo, but with buckets of blood and lots of swearing.”

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Once the second British horror-movie boom got going, it became clear that filmmakers were mostly looking in the same old places for their ideas: zombies (28 Days and 28 Months Later, Shaun of the Dead, Colin), werewolves (Dog Soldiers), aliens (Monsters, Attack the Block, The World’s End), serial killers (The Last Horror Movie, Mum and Dad, Tony), etc.  Occasionally, though, films have tapped into something more eerily and mysteriously British for their chills and some of these films have been very good indeed.  Here are half-a-dozen of my favourites.

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The Last Great Wilderness (2002)

Scottish director David Mackenzie’s first film is a strange but endearing hybrid that hovers on the fringes of being a horror film, thanks to a scene of shocking violence near its end, a sub-plot involving a ghost and the way that its script flirts with The Wicker Man – yes, it’s that movie again.  Alastair Mackenzie and Jonathan Philips play a pair of eccentrics, one on the run from some gangsters and the other planning an arson attack on the Scottish home of a rock star who’s eloped with his wife, who get lost in the Scottish Highlands.  They end up at a mysterious lodge run by the mighty Scottish character actor David Hayman, where people suffering from various psychological disorders (agoraphobia, nymphomania, etc.) are receiving treatment.  Hayman’s group-therapy methods seem to include paganism, for everybody there is preparing for an upcoming celebration that involves an ominously big bonfire…  Actually, the pagan element in The Last Great Wilderness doesn’t really add up to much, but it gives an opportunity for Glaswegian indie band The Pastels (who provide the celebration, and the film, with its music) to make an appearance wearing dresses.

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(c) Geographic / Domino

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In 2012 Hayman appeared in another film inspired by British, more specifically Scottish, folklore, Sawney – Flesh of Man.  In this he played a modern-day descendant of the legendary Sawney Bean, who in the 15th or 16th centuries supposedly lived in a cave at Bennane Head on the southwest Scottish coast, waylaid and devoured travellers and managed to sire a clan of 48 hungry cannibals.  Apart from Hayman’s performance, alas, the film is poor.

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Wake Wood (2009)

Hammer Films was the studio most closely associated with the original British horror-film boom, but it wasn’t until the late noughties, after the studio had been re-established, that it got around to making a proper folk-horror movie, the Irish-set Wake Wood.  Although the story, about a vet and his wife moving to a rural village after the death of their young daughter and encountering a pagan cult who claim they can safely bring the dead back to life if certain rules are followed – needless to say, the rules aren’t followed – is no great shakes and borrows from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, director David Keating captures the Irish countryside well.  Wake Wood was filmed around the village of Pettigo on the County Donegal / County Fermanagh border and the melancholic landscapes there, of autumnal trees, rain, stone dykes, thorny hedgerows and, in the distance, funereally-turning wind-turbines, form an effective backdrop to the grisly events in the plot.  (The blood and grue that the hero encounters during his veterinarian work is particularly hard to watch.)

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Unfortunately, Wake Wood snuck out between two more hyped releases by Hammer, Let Me In and The Woman in Black, and received little attention from critics and audiences.  Which is a pity – it’s not great but it’s certainly better than the crude 1989 movie adaptation of Pet Sematary.  And the eerie, pulsing music by Michael Convertino is good too.

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(c) Hammer Films

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Outcast (2009)

Another unfairly neglected British-Irish film, Outcast is the story of a pair of travelling people, a mother and son with magical powers, being pursued from Ireland to Scotland, where they try to keep a low profile in the housing schemes of Sighthill in western Edinburgh.  On their trail is a mysterious hunter / hitman called Cathal and an equally-mysterious, bestial something that rips its victims to pieces.  As Cathal has magical powers of his own, these two pursuers may be one and the same thing.  Unfortunately, the film has a botched ending – it never makes clear what exactly has been going on and it shows too much of the killer beast, which was scarier when it was hiding in the shadows.  At least this one doesn’t look like the Chewits monster.

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That said, Outcast has some lovely moments.  When the hunter and hunted use their magical powers to try to outwit one another, the film goes off into a weird, ritualistic and lore-ridden world of its own.  It also manages to convey the idea of supernatural forces from an older, stranger, rural world creeping into a modern, urban one; even into the concrete alleyways and apartment-blocks of Sighthill.  This is underlined by a sequence where the film’s young hero and heroine sit on a revolving roundabout in a playground at the city’s edge, so that behind them the concrete cityscape alternates with the twilit countryside.

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And Outcast has a great cast.  Sci-fi and fantasy nerds will drool over it because it features James Cosmo, Kate Dickie and Daniel Portman, all of whom would later appear in Game of Thrones; and also it features Karen Gillan just before she became the splendiferous Amy Pond in Doctor Who.  But the real acting revelation – especially if you only know him for playing Bofur the Dwarf in The Hobbit movies or for his appearances in a string of annoyingly laddish commercials – is James Nesbitt as the brutal and driven hunter, Cathal.  He’s so single-minded that he’ll happily disembowel a pigeon or saw off pieces of his own tattooed skin in order to conduct a gruesome divination ritual that’ll bring him closer to his quarry.  I just wish Nesbitt would do stuff like this in his Thomas Cook adverts.

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(c) Vertigo Films

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Black Death (2010)

Directed by Chris Smith, Black Death is also an international co-production (Britain and Germany this time) with a strong cast: Sean Bean, John Lynch, Andy Nyman, Tim McInnery and David Warner.  It feels a little out-of-place on this list, although it’s set in medieval England and the plot – during the time of the great plague, a young monk has to escort some church-employed warriors to a remote village where, it’s rumoured, the villagers have reverted to paganism – clearly channels that of The Wicker Man.  However, it was filmed in Saxony-Anholt and Brandenburg in Germany and its forested and marshy landscapes look too wild and desolate to pass for the British countryside.  Mind you, it’s set at a time before that humans had tamed much of that countryside with agriculture, so I suppose Britain looked much wilder then than it does now.

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Bravely, Smith gives the film a bleak ending that echoes that of the old folk-horror classic, 1968’s Witchfinder General – in which the hero grows so obsessed with destroying the villains that he loses his own goodness and becomes indistinguishable from what he’s fighting against.

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(c) Egoli Tossell Films

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Kill List (2011)

A Field in England (2013)

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With Kill List and A Field in England on his CV, director Ben Wheatley is the Orson Welles of modern British folk-horror.  However, clues to how his filmmaking career would develop are present in his first film, 2009’s Down TerraceDown Terrace is ostensibly a crime movie, but its story of a melancholic old gangster in Brighton who’s more interested in playing folk music and studying his local genealogy than in whacking his rivals make it seem in a sub-genre of its own: folk-gangster.

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Kill List begins in gangster territory with two hit-men, played by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, undertaking a job with a mysterious crime syndicate that has them travelling around the country and eliminating various people on the titular ‘kill-list’.  But unexpected things occur – their victims, instead of fleeing or begging for mercy, greet them with open arms.  Also, there are suggestions of crimes being secretly committed that are so unspeakable that Maskell flies into a homicidal rage when he glimpses them on a video recording.  Then for their final assignment Maskell and Smiley find themselves entering the grounds of a country mansion, and they find themselves too on the grounds of a certain, much-loved British folk-horror movie from 1973.  You know which one it is.

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Actually, the blog A Year in the Country pointed out recently that Kill List “felt like the true sequel to The Wicker Man, not The Wicker Tree.  More in keeping with the themes of that film but through a modern-day filter of a corruption that feels total and also curiously banal.”  I wrote about The Wicker Tree, Robin Hardy’s disappointing 2010 sequel to The Wicker Man, a little while ago and I can safely say that Kill List blows it out of the water.

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(c) Film 4 / Rook Films

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If Kill List is Wheatley’s take on The Wicker Man, then A Field in England is his riff on Witchfinder General.  Sharing that film’s English-Civil-War setting, it has a handful of exhausted soldiers (including one played by Reece Shearsmith) fleeing from a battle by breaking through a thick hedge on the battleground’s edge.  When they emerge on the hedge’s far side, they find themselves in a vast, overgrown field where they soon fall under the spell of a sorcerer, played by Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, who sets them to work digging holes for some obscure and presumably nefarious purpose.  Even by the standards of Wheatley, who doesn’t like giving his films much plot exposition, A Field in England is a baffling, if beguiling, film; and things take a further swing towards the outlandish when the characters ingest some magic mushrooms and experience kaleidoscopic hallucinations.  Incidentally, the field that appears here is actually at Hampton Estate, which specialises in ‘traditional agriculture’, between Guildford and Farnham in Surrey.

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The film is weird rather than horrific, although a scene where Shearsmith emerges, transformed, from Smiley’s tent after something unseen but hideous has happened to him there – we’ve heard him screaming – is about the most disturbing thing Shearsmith has ever done.  (And this is the man who used to play Papa Lazarou in The League of Gentlemen.)

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The Borderlands (2013)

Finally, there’s this film directed by Elliot Goldner, which made a stir recently.  I hadn’t been that interested in seeing it, as its plot synopsis – it’s a found-footage movie about some Vatican-assigned investigators checking out a remote English chapel where it’s claimed a miracle has taken place, only to discover dark forces at work – made it sound like The Blair Witch Project meets The Exorcist.  And I hate found-footage horror movies.  It always bugs me that the guy holding the camera never thinks of dropping it and running like hell, like any normal person would, when something horrible appears in front of him.

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Actually, The Borderlands gets around the found-footage credibility problem by having the clerics wear camera-and-microphone headsets at all times as part of their investigative procedure; so they can’t drop the cameras.  Meanwhile, the film’s religious elements get subverted as it becomes apparent that the spooky chapel – which in real life stands at Denbury in Devon – is on a site of ancient pagan worship, where something older and more malevolent than Christianity might be lurking.  Some have likened the path the film goes down to the works of HP Lovecraft, although it reminded me more of the Welsh occult writer Arthur Machen.

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The film also gets a big boost from its two main actors, Robin Hill (a long-time collaborator with Ben Wheatley) and Scottish comic performer Gordon Kennedy.  The characters they play have their faults – Hill is a motor-mouth who isn’t as funny as he thinks he is while Kennedy is surly and overly fond of the bottle – but they become likeable and end up forming an engaging double-act.  Which makes the claustrophobic ending (filmed in Chislehurst Caves in southeast London, which last saw British horror-movie location-duty in 1980 in Norman J. Warren’s dire Alien rip-off, Inseminoid) all the more horrifying.  We’ve enjoyed being in Hill and Kennedy’s company and don’t want bad stuff to happen to them.  But it does.  Bugger.

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(c) Metrodome

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